A poetic debut novel about a young, light-skinned African-American woman coming of age in Philadelphia, trying to connect the dislocated pieces of her life as her mother succumbs to cancer. A meditation on race, sex, family, and country.
The themes explored in What We Lose—race, identity, family, and loss—are familiar, but their presentation here feels entirely fresh and new ... made up of poetic vignettes that combine to create an unforgettable portrait of a young woman’s search for identity ... beautiful poignant prose makes What We Lose the kind of novel you might find yourself marking up as you underline a sentence on every other page. Clemmons’s prose is sharp, and though the book is slim, it’s a rich novel with more depth and innovation than many novels double its length.
In overt and subtle ways, the novel sets out to do important work: to explore the contours of race, class and gender and the legacy of apartheid; and it succeeds best when exploring these ideas through the delicately drawn and profoundly moving portrait it offers of a relationship between mother and daughter ... Clemmons is ambitious with her narrative form: the fragments of the novel make associative leaps from narrated scene to excerpts from academic studies, graphs of Thandi’s depression, song lyrics, and musings on subjects as diverse as the death of the photographer Kevin Carter and studies of cancer rates in communities of people of colour. But the novel is best when it simply tells the story of Thandi’s mother’s struggle with cancer, and it is here that Clemmons’s restrained prose reaches its full potential ... At times, Clemmons’s restrained prose, so powerful when the narrative lens is up close on Thandi’s mother, distances us from characters the reader longs to know more about. Yet What We Lose never strays too far from its central concern: how to live after loss, how to be an orphan, exploring lost expectations, dreams that go unrealised, relationships that seem never fully in our grasp.
The story not only thematically and structurally changes the usual story of loss, but also highlights a hardened subject matter with new and original attention ... Clemmons is incredibly successful in relating emotion to the reader without overly justifying it. The craved 'aha!' moment of acceptance is hard to find and even harder to understand. Overwhelmed by thoughts of finding love or simply a feeling that can resemble it, Thandi is often left without resolve, her journey creating a deeper void to fill and an unrelenting tear that will never be fixed ... Although much of the novel excels in never being over-explanatory—specifically by describing without telling—there are brief sections that spell out the feeling Clemmons is trying to capture more so than others. It does not work, especially when so much of the story does well to avoid it ... With a subject that has been written about so often, What We Lose innovates the story of grief.